For most people in England in the Middle Ages, life centred around the village. The village was usually part of an estate called a manor run by a lord or someone of noble birth or even a church or an abbey. Most villagers never journeyed out of the village during their lifetimes.
The bulk of people were peasants, working the land around the village with either horses, oxen, or a combination of the two. Fields tended to be long and thin because of the difficulty of turning a plough and its team around: a straight line was ploughed as far as possible before the farmer turned his team around and ploughed back the way he had come.
Not everyone was a farmer. There were blacksmiths, candlemakers, ale makers, potters, handymen and so forth. Everyone owed fees and services to the lord of the manor, but those who worked a large amount of land owed the most, usually.
There was such a thing as a ‘freeman’ or free peasant. Free peasants owned their land outright and did not owe any service to the lord of the manor.
The lord also owed services to the peasants and normally provided a mill for the village, a bakery, a court of justice, protection, and sometimes a parish church. The lord also provided land that the peasants could use to graze their pigs for a small fee, called ‘pannage’.
It was supposed to be a symbiotic relationship, each providing something the other needed: the lord received goods, services, and some cash to keep the manor running while the peasants received justice, protection, and services that they would not have been able to obtain easily elsewhere.
The point was that the village was more or less self-sufficient, providing for its own needs, and requiring very little interaction with the outside world.
As the Middle Ages went on, huge changes occurred incrementally. The Black Death in particular, wiping out as it did approximately a third of the workforce, created roving gangs of labourers, seeking work in other villages, and pushed up the cost of wages. Failures in local services, whether provided by the lord or others, led to a trend to look to the State for support, starting a slowly growing trend towards welfare from the centre. As the merchant class grew in importance and influence, the drive to make more money became central, prompting a range of technical advances which first resulted in the Agricultural Revolution, and then the Industrial Revolution. This in turn pulled people into cities, changing fundamental living patterns and breaking down geographic and familial bonds between people.
What does this have to do with writing?
Well, since the advent of the internet and instantaneous communications across the planet, the geographic barriers which grew up between populations, groups, families and co-workers have potentially started to break down again. Through social media, it’s now possible to interact with people of similar interests and needs in a way that bears comparison to the village.
For many writers today, isolation is a thing of the past. A well-run social media group based on the topic of writing can act as a social centre. Just as many villagers never journeyed out of their home village during their lifetimes, many writers today can get all they need from these kinds of groups.
Many of the other members are working writers, of course — but some writing groups also contain editors, publishers, cover designers, marketers and so on.
Just as the lord owed services to the peasants, a good group admin has a symbiotic relationship with group members, each providing something the other needs: the admin receives contributions, perhaps to anthologies or other publications, while the writers receive support, encouragement, information, enlightenment, editing and advice that they might not have been able to obtain easily elsewhere.
Technology is enabling a transformation of society, at least potentially. Yes, it’s all rather fragile and the infrastructure could come crumbling down in the same way as the Middle Ages became the Modern Era: it’s possible that the World Wide Web might collapse due to malfunctions or cyber-attacks, creating a more fragmented system which would push costs up and probably be more wayward and localised. After a while, the centre would need to reassert itself. The growth of entrepreneurial influence and power, though, would probably result in technical advances that we can hardly envisage at this point. It’s possible that new virtual cities would arise, disconnected from geography, in which people thousands of miles apart in reality would interact in a new ecology and economy. This in turn might lead to a movement for ‘reality’ to be restored, a reassertion of geography and localism. Who knows?
These are exciting times; it’s clear that technology has created and will create worlds in which the peculiar act of writing fiction — something that is very much associated with privacy and the individual — might flourish in new ways.